What Is Fluency, What Is Mastery...And How Do You Get There?

If there is one question that haunts language learners, it must be this one:

"How many languages do you speak fluently?"

Often asked innocently by people who are interested, it can strike terror in your mind. Will they test you on your languages? Are you allowed to say you're fluent if you still make mistakes?

fluency podcast

Oof! Those are heavy questions, and none of them are difficult to answer. Even for those of us who have studied for decades, the question of fluency still causes confusion.

This week on the Fluent Show, Lindsay and I went deep on those questions.

It's a great conversation, and will provide you with a new sense of clarity and inspiration, so you can confidently go out there and do what you need to do: learn languages and feel great about it!

Press play now, and don't forget to leave us a comment below to share what you thought of the show.

Podcast Notes

Our warm-up discussion revolved around the labels we see in our space, and whether they apply to you.

If You Travel And Work On A Laptop, Are You a Digital Nomad?

A digital nomad is a person who travels and works online, right? But for some reason, the term can feel icky to us. In this week's episode, we discussed how some words walk that line between being descriptive and defining.

When being a digital nomad (or "polyglot", y'know..?) becomes a label that you like to put on yourself, it's worth taking a second to consider who that YOU really is underneath. After all, at some point everyone might want to stop travelling and settle up with a nice cat, just two target languages instead of 12, and a garden and a veg patch. And that is super cool, because that's you.

If you thought that this discussion of who YOU are was deep, wait until you hear what we moved on to!

How Will You Get Fluent? How Can You Achieve Mastery?

I have received several messages from listeners recently, asking the Fluent Show to weigh in on how we can achieve goals such as fluency and mastery. And interestingly, each one of them asked another question:

"How do I know when I have achieved it?"

What Is Fluency In A Language?

Our first question came from Evan, and he wondered when one can consider oneself fluent in a language. In the question, Evan considered quite a range of definitions from "making no mistakes" to "dreaming in your target language".

Our discussion starts off with this fluency mindmap I drew:

mindmap I drew

Bet you love my handwriting. Here's more about our take on fluency..

  • "Fluency" implies speed and ease when using a language, which comes out most strongly when you're interacting with someone in person
  • Usually interacting with someone in person means speaking
  • The concept includes intercultural awareness that helps you put your conversation partner at ease and how to interact in a way that is appropriate for their style
  • It implies confidence, meaning you have strategies to keep a conversation going

Fluency In A Language Is A Moving Target

Ultimately, your own definition of what fluency means to you is personal and unique. We believe that there are different points of fluency. These can relate to your goals and the purpose of your language learning. They can relate to what you are aiming for next, or what you're finding around you right now.

Just as life is forever changing, you may constantly evaluate your requirements for being "fluent".

What Is Mastery Of A Language?

Moving on from the fuzzy concept of fluency, we turned our minds to "Mastery" and how it is different from the former.

Madeline wrote in and asked:

What counts as mastery? Does every native speaker even possess it?

Our Thoughts on Mastery

This one was even trickier to nail down, believe it or not!

  • Mastery is a point of pride and confidence for many, something we actively aim for and
  • The word implies comfortable command, being able to use a skill (i.e. a language) with ease
  • Mastery includes understanding beyond the literal meaning of the words in a target language
  • But it can also imply superiority, like being the best out of everyone who uses that target language. Which isn't quite right in this context.
  • For me, mastery is about more than just conversation and personal interaction. It encompasses the four core skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing

Our Conclusion

Both fluency and mastery are wonderful concepts to consider, but as Lindsay says, she is happy to not be fluent or masterful in every language. There is so much to discover and learn, and we can take a lot of joy out of appreciating the way that's ahead of us.

Yes, you can always get better. But there's no point in stressing about whether you are a fluent master - walk your own path, keep moving forward, and allow yourself to feel fluent on your own terms.